Skip to main content

Hubble gets a peek at how stars could have formed in the early universe

With the early science results coming in from the James Webb Space Telescope we’re learning more than ever before about the early universe. But it’s not only Webb which is helping scientists to understand the universe when it was young — as a recent release from the Hubble Space Telescope demonstrates, we also have a lot to learn from other tools too.

Hubble researchers recently shared this image of a cluster of stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. This small galaxy has a different chemical composition than our galaxy and is therefore more like the galaxies found in the early universe, so studying it can help us learn about how stars were born when the universe was still young.

A massive cluster of stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
Astronomers have been bemused to find young stars spiraling into the center of a massive cluster of stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. The outer arm of the spiral in this huge, oddly shaped stellar nursery — called NGC 346 — may be feeding star formation in a river-like motion of gas and stars. This is an efficient way to fuel star birth, researchers say. NASA, ESA, A. James (STScI)

The cluster of stars, called NGC 346, is small in size at just 150 light-years across but is a particularly busy stellar nursery. This region is full of young stars, and these stars seem to be forming in a flowing spiral structure of gas and stars which the researchers compare to a river. This could help explain why the rate of star formation here is so high.

“Stars are the machines that sculpt the universe. We would not have life without stars, and yet we don’t fully understand how they form,” explained study leader Elena Sabbi of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore in a statement. “We have several models that make predictions, and some of these predictions are contradictory. We want to determine what is regulating the process of star formation because these are the laws that we need to also understand what we see in the early universe.”

The findings are relevant to the early universe because, like early galaxies, there are relatively few heavy elements to be found in the Small Magellanic Cloud. This means that the stars here burn hot and bright and die off quicker than stars in our galaxy. Seeing how stars are born in this cluster, where the material is moving in a spiral formation, helps explain what might have happened in the period two to three billion years after the Big Bang.

“A spiral is really the good, natural way to feed star formation from the outside towards the center of the cluster,” explained another of the researchers, Peter Zeidler of AURA/STScI for the European Space Agency. “It’s the most efficient way that stars and gas fueling more star formation can move towards the center.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Hubble spots an ancient pair of supermassive black holes about to merge
This artist's concept shows the brilliant glare of two quasars residing in the cores of two galaxies that are in the chaotic process of merging. The gravitational tug-of-war between the two galaxies ignites a firestorm of star birth.

The hearts of some galaxies glow so brightly that they are given a special name: Quasars. Powered by supermassive black holes at the center of these galaxies, these regions give off tremendous amounts of light as gas falls towards the black hole and heats up, resulting in a glow as powerful as over 100 billion stars. Recently, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope spotted two of these quasars burning brightly in the night sky -- and they're on a collision course.

The pair of quasars, known as SDSS J0749+2255, are from some of the earliest stages of the universe when it was just 3 billion years old. The two galaxies that host the quasars are in the process of merging, and eventually, the two will come together to form one enormous galaxy.

Read more
There’s a cosmic jellyfish in this week’s Hubble image
The galaxy JW100 (lower right) features prominently in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The streams of star-forming gas dripping from the disk of the galaxy like streaks of fresh paint are formed by a process called ram pressure stripping. Their resemblance to dangling tentacles led astronomers to refer to JW100 as a ‘jellyfish’ galaxy. JW100 is over 800 million light-years away, in the constellation Pegasus.

This week's Hubble image shows an unusual type of galaxy that might seen more at home in the ocean than among the stars: a jellyfish galaxy. These galaxies have a main body of stars, with tentacle-like structures reaching off away from the body in just one direction. This particular jellyfish galaxy, known as JW100, is located more than 800 million light-years away and is found in the constellation of Pegasus.

The jellyfish galaxy is located toward the bottom right of the image, with purple-pink tentacles of stars reaching downward. In the upper middle part of the image, you'll also see two very bright blobs, which are the core of another galaxy within the same galaxy cluster. This nearby galaxy, called IC 5338, is the brightest one within the cluster and has a large glowing area around it called a halo.

Read more
Hubble sees the changing seasons on Jupiter and Uranus
[Jupiter: left] - The forecast for Jupiter is for stormy weather at low northern latitudes. A prominent string of alternating storms is visible, forming a ‘vortex street’ as some planetary astronomers call it. [Uranus: right] - Uranus’s north pole shows a thickened photochemical haze that looks similar to the smog over cities. Several little storms can be seen near the edge of the polar haze boundary. Note: The planets do not appear in this image to scale.

Our planet isn't the only place in the solar system with dramatic weather changes. Other planets in the solar system also experience seasons, depending on their distance from the sun, and that affects their climates. One of the many jobs of the Hubble Space Telescope is to monitor the changing seasons on other planets, particularly the larger outer planets which aren't so often observed. And this week, scientist have released their newest views of Jupiter and Uranus, taken by Hubble and showing seasonal changes on the two planets.

Jupiter is far from the sun, so most of its heat comes not from outside but from within. Jupiter is thought to have a very high core temperature, which may be a result of how it was formed but could also be topped up by processes inside the planet. As this heat escapes from the planet's interior, it affects its atmosphere which contains multiple layers and has unusual features like geometric storms at its poles.

Read more